In 1526 while at the university of Basle, it is said that Paracelsus made a public show of burning the works of Galen and Avicenna before his pupils. It was not that these authors had nothing of value to say, I imagine, but that the texts themselves had taken on a kind of malignant life of their own, and if anything were not spreading knowledge, but smothering it.
For anyone who has had to purchase a modern textbook in any of those subjects typically favoured as science, this feeling of suffocation is bound to be a familiar one. Costing up to five hundred dollars or more, now with CD-Roms and special passwords to access online content that changes every year, students are told that their educations depend on these texts. The first edition just will not do, for unlike in the humanities, it is said, scientific knowledge is advancing endlessly, rendering everything that has come before it misleading, if not altogether obsolete. In this way a book costing hundreds of dollars becomes useless in a year, the “information” contained in it just so much clutter that even many charitable organizations can not give away; not only does no one need them, rarity of rarities, no one seems to want them either.
They are, quite simply, extra fees on the way to a degree.
It is worse in the fields of administration and business. The very people who should ostensibly be trained to lead and organize society, in the course of their education, collect an artificial shoal of educational detritus that no literate person would ever want. Unlike physics or the medical sciences, whose saving grace is their relative stability, after wading through a collection of these administrative texts, I have to question if the entirety of the educational system that produces them is not simply a covert, complex confidence scheme designed to get even more money from their cash crop of choice, the undergraduate student.
The greatest burdens fall on the foreign students, and the poor, who know that they are being cheated at multiple levels of their education, but hope that if they can only endure it long enough, somehow they will break through to the other side of employment, prosperity, or, at the very least, the kind of corrupted power necessary to be the deceiver, instead of the deceived.
Many students know this, many professors know this as well, yet all that seems to come from this knowledge is a kind of cynicism. A valuable lesson, no doubt, in a system that employs these sorts of methods to perpetuate itself, but hardly the kind of message that makes a healthy, intelligent society possible.
And so, when I glance across a classroom and see all the faces staring back, eager for grades if not for wisdom, I ask myself, sincerely: just what would Paracelsus burn?
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